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Olympic Dreams

The Olympics end this weekend. I’ve really enjoyed them. There’s something so pure, so beautiful, about young people from all over the world competing in a spirit of brotherhood . . .

But this time, it’s been about more than winning medals. Perhaps most notably with Simone Biles, athletes have taken a stand for personal health and balance, putting their humanity above their performance.

Former skier Zoë Ruhl describes the dilemma in an op-ed in the New York Times: “I wish someone had gathered the courage to do what Biles did when I was still competing, because I sure didn’t. Skiing made me special. “You’re Zoë, the skier,” people would say. So when thoughts of quitting the sport cropped up, I pushed them down. Take away skiing, and poof — there goes special. I would just be Zoë. And who was Zoë without skiing? An awkward, average girl who was too nerdy to be cool, not seen as smart enough to be a nerd and too weird for everything else. So I skied.”

The skills Olympians exhibit are indeed special. Like our fascination with superheroes, we want our athletes to be superhuman, above the struggles we all face every day. But that is not reality--and it is not healthy. Maybe in this Olympics, we are being challenged to take a broader view: that our quadrennial coming together as one world for these games is about more than winning and losing--it is about celebrating and enriching our common humanity.

My little state of Vermont, better known for winter sports, sent three women to Tokyo. One of them, runner Elle Purrier St. Pierre, especially captured our hearts--a quintessential Vermont girl, she grew up milking cows on a dairy farm. Elle reached the gold medal race in the 1500 meters, finishing 10th in the world. Though not the result she had hoped for, she shared this on Facebook:

“Today is the day! The Olympic final. I’ll be lining up proud and honored to represent the great country that is The United States of America. Ready to fight and to leave it all on the track because that is what we are made of.

Although there are many people I’d like to thank and things I’d like to say, i think I’ll save it for after and just leave you with this one piece that is giving me strength in my race tomorrow.

Beverly Taisey Purrier was born in 1921, she was a woman before her time. She went to college and had a self supporting career for many years before she met her husband. At the age of 40 (which was practically unheard of in the year of 1962) she had her first and only child…my dad. I was always very close with my grandmother as we shared many of the same interests and personality traits such as being independent and strong willed, but also having classful taste and appreciating the details in life. She loved flowers (red geraniums) and she especially loved butterflies. I vividly remember all of her butterfly decorations covering her house and how she always wore butterfly scarves. In the last few months leading up to the Olympics I have felt her presence with me on many occasions but nothing quite like on Wednesday night.

Approximately 10 seconds after I found out that my time had advanced me to the Olympic final, I turned to talk to a reporter for an interview and right as I did I saw something so beautiful but peculiarly out of place. It was a butterfly that fluttered inches away from me and then off into the stadium center, and I immediately knew it was a sign from her.

Maybe it was because I asked the reporter if she saw the same thing as I did or maybe it was because the butterfly was so obviously misplaced but she asked me if it meant something to me…and I without a doubt in my mind said yes it means very much to me.

She is with me, she loves me and she is so proud.”

Pride in who we are and what we can do. A few days ago, I took part in a wonderful discussion in a book group I belong to. As people shared about what they were reading, a theme emerged from the biographies and novels: though heroes real and fictional accomplished great things, they also harbored deep flaws. George Washington owned slaves. Martin Luther hated Jews. People of every background, even those who have accomplished great things, have demonstrated prejudice towards those not like them.

How should we react to this knowledge? As a history teacher, I have long been aware that the cynicism it can lead to is deadly. I don’t want students coming away with the lesson that everybody’s got a dark side, so why bother trying to live up to high ideals? We’ll never get there anyway.

Instead, I decided to teach about history’s heroes “warts and all:” include the flaws, but also the achievements. And that leads to a very different realization--that despite our flaws, we imperfect people can indeed do great things. Awareness of our limitations should not make us despair--it should make us marvel all the more deeply at what we can do.

And so, as these Olympics draw to a close, let us celebrate all they have shown: that despite a global pandemic, we could still gather. That despite conflict, we could compete in peace. That despite our flaws, we can still move closer to the dream that keeps us going: of a human family, celebrating our strengths and differences while helping each other across the finish line.

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